The bigger the better, right? Well, not necessarily. Small churches have advantages that a big church couldn’t have.
This week Doug interviews Randy Weener, Classis Leader for the Great Lake City Classis in Michigan. They discuss small churches – their advantages, disadvantages, and unique opportunities.
[00:00:30] Defining a small church
A small church can be defined as a congregation of less than 100 in worship and have less than $140,000 in annual receipts. About 47% of the churches in America fall under this category. There are three ways a church becomes a small church: 1) larger churches that have declined, 2) church plants that have yet to be sustainable, 3) churches that are meant to be small. The third category of churches are usually able to serve a unique population – rural communities, urban neighborhoods, immigrant populations, etc.
[00:05:55] Biggest strengths
Small churches tend to be a tight knit community, like an extended family. There’s a lot of intergenerational interaction and community interaction. The pastors are often bi-vocational and become like the go-to pastor for the whole community, even for people outside the congregation. A healthy small church is one that knows its limits and is able to focus and serve its niche community, and is able to persevere through its many hardships.
[00:11:00] Real life examples and challenges
There was a church plant that started a retail store to raise additional funds. The pastor had his office in that store so he was able to connect with the customers in that store, often praying over them and inviting them to church services. Other churches have done block parties or other outreaches to connect with their community. The challenges come when people start expecting small churches to do things that big churches do. But you can’t expect a chihuahua to be a great dane.
[00:16:00] Growth in a small church
How do you define growth in a small church? Growth in a small church doesn’t have to be based on numbers. A good way to know if a small church is at a good size is if they have around 20% of the population they are trying to reach. Another way to know a church is growing is if they are able to multiply. There’s always more populations in the city, state, country, or world that we can reach.
[00:21:25] When is a small church winning?
Some things to measure for success are community impact, discipleship, and involvement. Some things that are unique to a small church can also be their ability to adapt quickly because there’s less legislation to get through for a change to happen. These are all things that are not dependent on a church’s size.
[00:25:50] For those small churches that used to be big churches
Many times these churches consist of people from the older generation, and they believe that gaining younger people is the key to replenishing their numbers. But they neglect that they can reach out to their own peers as well who could be yearning for God. There also comes a time when a church must face the realization that it’s at its end. That’s when a church needs to think about what kind of legacy they’re leaving behind. Whether it’s providing a building for a new congregation to use, or funding a new project, they need to see God’s kingdom building outside of themselves.
Get in touch with today’s guest:
Randy Weener: firstname.lastname@example.org
Read the blogpost: https://luminexusa.org/small-churches-matter/
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DOUG: Welcome to the Luminex podcast. Here you’ll find ideas and conversation to help you on your church leadership journey. Luminex is focused on leaders to start and develop churches. We provide resources and support for you and all the leaders of your church family at luminexusa.org
[00:00:30] EPISODE 10 V.1
DOUG: Welcome to the Luminex podcast. Today we have Randy Weener. Randy is a friend of mine and a friend of many of our listeners but Randy welcome to the program and can you tell us a little bit about yourself.
RANDY: Thanks Doug. Glad to be here. I serve as the Classis leader for Great Lake City Classis in Michigan. And also I’m the coordinator for church publication for the Reformed Church in America. Prior to that have served as a church planter, revitalization turnaround congregation before that; and before that youth ministry, music education, some camp ministry for that as well.
DOUG: So you have kind of been in the church in many ways, in many different roles so –
RANDY: That’s for sure. Every time its seems to be something different that God calls me to and so it’s a huge learning curve every time I turn around.
DOUG: Well, it’s great to have you here and today we’re going to talk about the small church form and just what it means to minister as a church that is smaller in numerical size and let’s just run right into that. What is a small church and how do you define it?
RANDY: There’re different definitions for a small church. Most often people refer to a small church as those that gather 50 or less people on a Sunday morning. The way we’re using it, in the small church form – which by the way is a gathering of about 10 different churches within our classis that fall into that lower side of the scale – and what we’re using as a definition will be those that are under 100 in worship and under $140,000 in annual income. The reason we picked those numbers was because if you get lower than those numbers usually you’re going to have difficulty having a staff, a full time pastor, a program and a facility. So compensations have to be made or adaptations.
DOUG: Okay. So for our purposes we’re talking about under 100 people at a Sunday morning or a weekly worship gathering, and under $140,000 in annual receipts.
RANDY: Right. And just to put that into perspective, the median size of a congregation in the US today is 75. So, 46% of Americans attend a church of less than 100. So we are talking really of almost the majority of congregations that are out there.
DOUG: So you mentioned earlier the small church forum, can you tell us a little bit about how that developed and some of the things that you’ve been up to with that just to kind of give a background?
RANDY: This forum has been gathering now since the summer of 2016. It started with some of the small church pastors coming to me with some sustainability questions. Now small churches become small, I found, in three categories. You have those that were once larger churches that have declined to a point where they fall into that category. You have another group of churches that are church plants that have not ascended beyond that size and the ability to be self sustainable. But there is this third group – which came to light for me as I talked to these pastors – is that there is also a genre of churches, species of churches, that is intended to be small. It has its own uniqueness and ability to reach populations that others don’t. So it’s out of that, first of all, need for sustainability that we got together and invited other churches that fit that category, and we’ve added to that, not only how do we sustain churches through that zone or permanently in that area, but also how do we multiply them because it doesn’t give them a pass and the need to multiply as well.
DOUG: And small churches can be in any kind of community. There’re small churches in big cities and there are small churches in small towns. Context is all over the map but what population does a small church uniquely reach?
RANDY: That’s a four different areas that I will refer to. One will be those that are in rural villages maybe the population is only 500 people or there about. So to be able to support a full congregation with a building and full time pastor and any program will be out of reach of some rural settings. The other end of that will be the urban settings where there is often high need; a lot of pastoral care [00:05:00] is required, economic levels are low. A third area will be immigrant populations that have come to the United States and there is a limited pool of people who speak the language, know the culture. But another one that we are exploring and I’m reading more about – I think, the future of the church for millennial’s with their desire to be in high community settings where there is lots of almost extended family situation where they have identified a particular community that they want to reach and transform. In other countries we see it especially in oppressed areas like China, in India, and we hope to learn something from our global missionaries as well.
[00:05:55] Ep 10 V2
DOUG: Yeah, so small churches need a definite niche all over the world in all kinds of different contexts. That’s interesting. What have you found, as you’ve been meeting together, are some of the biggest strengths of a small church?
RANDY: Well often with the small churches and all the things that go along with it, for example pastors are frequently bi-vocational. In a 2000 study in the US 29% of pastors are bi-vocational. That increases to 40% in black Protestant congregations. So when the pastor is no longer full time, then what increase is volunteerism; then the rest of the congregation has to step up. So the odd 20-80 year old can be flipped on its end often in the small church. I think small churches do community exceptionally well with each other. And I said earlier they are like an extended family, they love and care, they are spontaneous – it doesn’t have to be programmed, it doesn’t have to be someone’s assignment, it just sort of happens. They also do, I think, local mission engagement really well. They know their neighbors; they have relationships with the community people and community leaders in their setting. I think small churches also do intergenerational well. Larger churches we tend to segregate people by age, whereas in a small church much is done as entire families. Small churches, I think, also tend to lean more towards collaboration with other churches. They know that they are not self contained and so churches that are in their community of different denominations, they often will work together and support one another. I think the pastor of small churches also becomes sort of the community pastor not just for the church but for the greater community. So they often get asked to do weddings to people who weren’t members of the church; or funerals. They often get asked to counsel non-members, often informally. I remember one time in a setting like that, just a postman began to layout, every time he stopped by, something else about what was happening in his family. This is the sort of thing that happens in the small church where you have access to the real community. They might be volunteer fire chaplains or school chaplains or city commission chaplains. They’re often asked by the funeral home to come and do a funeral for someone in town who doesn’t have a church home. So they become almost like the pastor of a parish in those kind settings.
DOUG: It does seem that when a small church is healthy it has a disproportionately positive impact on the community around it, disproportionate to its size. And a lot of things happen even though the worshipping attended is small, but that church is pursuing its purpose, its vision, in a healthy way. So, I want to make a distinction between a healthy small church and a non healthy small church. And so often the two get confused because there are many unhealthy small churches. What are the signs of health in a small church?
RANDY: Yeah. That’s a great distinction to make because a small church, because family is so central and as I said earlier, extended family can also become very much a closed group and there is the us and them kind of relationship. And they have so much history and story that they share that, as an outsider to come in, there is a lot of barriers that you’ve got the break through. So that definitely is a challenge that they face. I think a healthy small church, first of all, has a good sense of identity in its limits so what it can do and does, what it does well and doesn’t try to overreach and over program. If they maintain a focus on the [00:10:00] relationships rather than developing programs, growth internally and externally, that would be helpful I think. They have to have – they need vulnerability, transparency, they need to see the mission field in their own neighborhood well. Sometimes they can participate as partners in larger things but they have to deal with conflicts well, they can’t be burying it, or severe confrontational kind of conflict can often destroy and break a church like that. So they have to have deep love for one another that they can persevere through the challenges they face.
DOUG: So in many ways a small healthy church is the same as a healthy large church. In other ways its different but you can have an unhealthy large church and unhealthy small church, you can have healthy churches that are both large and small.
RANDY: True. The Criteria in both cases applies to both.
[00:11:00] Ep 10 V3
DOUG: You talked about a small church being uniquely able to minister in a very small place where the city or the community or the village is quite small. I’m reminded of Francis Schaffer’s adage “no little people, no little places” and how important those places are to God and to the church and, can you tell us a story about something that’s going on in a little church in a big way?
RANDY: We’re a small church that had – It’s a church plant. Its only about three years old and like most small churches they’re struggling financially, they hadn’t reached that point of self sustainability yet. So to raise additional funds, they have now started a retail store that is bringing in some of the gap in their income. But far beyond just the financial resources that’s it’s producing, its providing the pastor, who is setting up his office in the store now, opportunity to meet lots of people who come to the doors. So it isn’t uncommon for him to be praying for someone who shares a concern that they have when they realize he’s a pastor. They have, about three out of four Sundays, they have people who they meet at the store who start showing up in Sunday mornings. So it has become a community outreach at the same time that it’s raising resources for the church. Others have just done block parties for their neighborhoods. And it doesn’t have to be high programmed, it’s just high relationships. Light a campfire and set some chairs up and grill some hot dogs and just get to know your neighbors; and these are people who live in the neighborhood meeting people who live in the neighborhood and those are some of the things that a small church can do well. And I think they are also very approachable by people who may have lots of debris in their past or fractured lives, where they’re looking for that sense where they can belong. And the small church is just so much easier to feel like people love you, care for you, will miss you if you’re not there and will address very quickly the needs that you have.
DOUG: Yeah. It seems too that some small churches are really able to do a signature event or a signature program very well and it kind of becomes their reputation throughout the community.
RANDY: Yeah. There is often those kinds of traditions in small churches that get built out from year to year.
DOUG: And they really build bridges to Christ, they really build bridges to the Christian church and the broader witness in so many interesting ways. So we’ve mentioned some challenges, one of them is of course financial challenge but, what are some of the other challenges that a small church faces?
RANDY: Just sticking with the resources for a moment, it often means that a pastor is bi-vocational but so many things that are done at a Classis region or denominational level or workshops or seminars, trainings are done during the week. And so if you are a bi-vocational pastor, you are just not accessible to a lot of things and the meetings that are normally scheduled for fulltime pastors. They don’t often get paid to go to the regional denominational kinds of meetings because they have to take off of work in order to do that. This is a special challenge for the pastor. But the one thing that really stood up with me at the very first time we met at the forum, was that small churches struggle with self-esteem. We live in a supersized [00:15:00] world where everything has to be big and bigger and so they often feel like they are inferior because their stories are not the grand stories that often get told from the stage. And they are always challenged that they need to be bigger. I would say that it would be like feeding you Chihuahua steroids and changing their diet because you want to make them a Great Dane. They are a Chihuahua. They are intended to be a Chihuahua. That’s how they were designed and I think for the first three centuries after Jesus there were small churches all over. That’s where the movement began – from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. I think we have to recognize that they do have an identity and they have a purpose and they are important as some of the churches on the phase of the earth and so we have to do whatever we can to help them feel important and fulfilled in the fact that even though they are small it doesn’t make them insignificant.
[00:16:00] Ep10 V4
DOUG: That’s a really good point Randy and that so often in the post church growth movement world there is this pressure that every church should be growing incrementally larger and larger by addition all the time. When in fact, some of our smaller churches tend to make a disciple, raise them up into a leader and send them out perhaps to another church; often, as in the case of rural communities, to another community. And so their relative size isn’t because they are not making disciples, and it’s because there’re all kinds of other factors.
RANDY: Sure. On the percentage basis, let’s say you are a church of 100 in a town of 500; you have 20% of the population. What large church can say that often about their community? So if you use percentage as real numbers, the impact of these small churches is really great.
DOUG: Yeah, as I said earlier, disproportionately large especially in a small community and then the global impact from just sending people out often. People are raised in a small town in order to leave that small town and those youth ministries and childrens ministries and things that those small churches did leave a huge impact on the world.
DOUG: When is it unhealthy for a small church to say, “Yeah, well, we don’t want to be pressured to grow so we’re just not going to grow?”
RANDY: That’s probably always a risk. Well they might not grow either because of limited space maybe they are in an urban setting where there is just not a larger venue available to them, or a smaller community where there is not enough people around – population is too small. It doesn’t excuse them from the opportunity to multiply. As I said earlier, Chihuahuas give birth to Chihuahuas. Everything species still reproduces after its own kind and there are other small villages and there are other urban settings and neighborhood that need churches as well. We don’t have a lot of good examples out there yet of small churches reproducing themselves, but I think it is something that has to be targeted like a small group in a congregation needs to reproduce itself by raising internal leaders and interns and being willing for the sake of the gospel to move on and send. We have to create that multiplication factor within our small churches. If one small church in an urban setting assumes responsibility for maybe 200 homes and then can plant into the next 200 homes and that movement can saturate a city over time if we are more strategic and willing. It just seems like a higher risk for a small church to give people away and if they gave 10 people away it might be 10-20% of their people which seems so risky to them but if we could get a few with that kind of faith, and can put a plan together that financially they are sustainable, multiplication really is the way that they need to be thinking.
DOUG: Yeah and certainly in the realm of micro-multiplication where they are making disciples, they are evangelizing new people, they are raising up the children from within, those are some rich examples of multiplication.
RANDY: Yeah, we can’t underestimate how many of their children make profession of faith. We often talk about those who come from the outside and are converted to Christianity but we mustn’t ignore the Christian family raising up within the covenant of their own children to make profession of faith at that point in life. But also the percentage of new believers that come into a congregation that’s small [00:20:00] per worship size that ratio is actually better than it is in large churches.
DOUG: Yeah. That’s so important to remember. So lots of different challenges, what are some way churches are addressing those challenges? We talked about some resourcing ways but, what about this self-esteem issue and the sense of vision and purpose, how have you seen that addressed in a small church.
RANDY: I think here is where the denominational roles of classis and region denomination can – we often get our self-esteem from what others say about us, and to us, and for us, and on behalf of us. And I think we have that responsibility for those who have leadership within denominational structures, to make sure that we are telling stories of these small churches, giving opportunity to speak. They can do community so well. If we can partner them with larger churches who often struggle with their intimate community and learn from them, often these small churches are ethnic groups and nearly everybody today lives in some kind of a diverse community. How can they reach that ethnic city in their own community and be able to draw upon the wisdom and knowledge and experience of that smaller congregation who has those skills.
[00:21:25] Ep10 V5
DOUG: We talk a lot. There’s a lot going on in leadership and church circles about the scorecard, so to speak, and it seems like a small church may have a different kind of score card than a larger church. What does it look like? What does success look like? How does a small church know when its winning?
RANDY: Right. This is a tough question because we’re so embedded with the metrics of how many people are in worship, what’s our budget, how much benevolent funding are we giving away – that sort of thing. And I think, as I have already said, that percentage of population that’s reached. So whatever that parish that you’ve been assigned, what percent have you reached? Conversation rates are often higher in a small plant and particularly those being discipled and mentored is always higher in a church plant. So I think measuring how many people are being discipled, how many people are actually involved in some way to reach their workforce, their school, their ability to be mobilized into the family units that they are in, and the economy in which they work, like measuring how much community involvement in their local village or their local neighborhood. They are very adept in doing that because that’s right where they live. So measuring community impact, discipleship, conversation will be some of those things that will be worth measuring.
DOUG: Yeah, those are things any church would do well to change the scorecard a bit and celebrate. And it’s interesting isn’t it, that celebration is often difficult for us as Christians even though we get together every week to celebrate the greatest comeback ever, and yet sometimes it’s hard for us to see God in the small things, God in these things that can be celebrated around us.
RANDY: Yeah. Reminds me of one of our small churches that had a benevolent fund that people would give to, but rather in trusting the deacons to distribute that benevolent fund, they would raise an issue from someone that they knew. It could be a neighbor who’s refrigerator went out and can’t afford a new one. They will themselves make the case to get money for that new refrigerator, but they will be, as a neighbor, the one who delivered it on behalf of the church. So that kind of direct interpersonal kind of connectivity is so much more likely to happen in a small church where there is direct delivery from person who really knows the person in need.
DOUG: I think another overlooked scorecard I want to get your take on this or part of the score is the ability of a small church to innovate in worship. A lot of times a large church can’t do communion in a particular way, or can’t experiment with certain musical styles, or even expressions of the arts in ways that small churches can. So I wonder if counting in the way that we’ve innovate and been creative in worship is something we could add to the score card.
RANDY: Yeah. I think the small churches are nimble and they can be pretty spontaneous whether it’s a need or an idea and [00:25:00] I have to run it through three levels of decision making and budgeting before they can do it. The idea comes up or there’s a national crisis that shows up they can – two days later – change their worship service to revolve around what that need is. There is not that much machinery they got to move around and get in place.
DOUG: Yeah. And again that’s the sign of a healthy small church that its adaptive, it’s missional, it’s adventurous –
RANDY: Its able to make mistakes. It’s a small enough community that they are forgiving of one another, that not everything has to be perfect and they can try things and learn from them. And if they didn’t work out, they deal, they pick it up and do something else.
[00:25:50] Ep10 V6
DOUG: Let’s talk for a minute about the case of a church that is always thinking about a glory day in the past maybe when they were a large church. You mentioned that that’s one of the sources of small churches or churches that have become smaller. Often manufacturing or agricultural chains in an area and people begin to move away, or fewer children are born, or different demographics shifts that we’ve certainly seen all across North America, put the days when the sanctuary was full and now we just have 50 or 60 people. How do we help people move beyond the glory days of the past to the preferred future of God’s vision for them?
RANDY: That’s a tough one because it’s still they are grieving the past and often not availing themselves to what new trends and new approaches that are out there. Often along with that declining smaller church is an age gap where it’s an older congregation and their goal is always to get younger – ‘we just need some more younger families in here.’ We hear it so often. But it says of David, he served his own generation and he was laid to rest with his fathers and I think there is something to be said about serving your own generation. So even if it’s a smaller church of older members, there are members of their generation who still need to love Jesus. We have some people maybe in an industrial town like you said that the major industry has left. I’m just thinking of one community in particular where there was one pretty good economic lifestyle – blue-collar workers but they did well for themselves. When the business left, they didn’t seem to need God while they were working, but now 20-30 years laters in the same generation of the members of the church, those props that they were leaning on are no longer there. Insurance wasn’t quite as good, their families didn’t turn out like they thought they would, their own health is beginning to subside, the pension began to decline and suddenly life as they had it put together isn’t there anymore. And I think that older smaller congregation need to look at who are the people we can reach? And we can usually reach our own generation.
DOUG: Yeah. That’s a very good point. How do you adapt to the non-believers around you rather than thinking in terms of we’ve got to get young blood here.
RANDY: Yeah. As we use size as a measure of success, in their world so does youthfulness and both of them cannot be applied across, cannot support everything.
DOUG: Now there’s a point at which church cycles out, it finishes its life cycle and it usually does so as a small church and I think about healthy ways that a church can conclude its life cycle. What are your thoughts on the lifecycle and how that relates to small churches?
RANDY: Yeah, there is that point where every church from the beginning of Christianity has run its cycle, like anything else that God has created. Often it’s not as much about the numbers as it is the will, and that was hard to measure but it’s so significant. If a congregation still has the will to continue, the will to make changes, the willingness to make changes, the generativity to give-up their own treasured traditions to adapt to something new, I think they still have a life ahead of them. But when that point comes where that will is no longer there, and everything continues to drop in numbers, then I think the best way to talk about it is the legacy. We might not live our life forever but we do leave a legacy, every one of us. [00:30:00] And it comes to a point in each one of our lives when our lives is less important than the lives of our kids and as any tree in the forest only grows to a certain size but it continues to drop seeds. I think that’s something that a small church, or any church as its coming to end of its life cycle, can still leave with a legacy, not only to live with the shame that this church has been around for 50 years, 150 years, 250 years and it’s going to close on our watch. No, you left a legacy that moves into something new. It’s a fresh start; you’re planting the seed for something new. Whether it’s giving your resources or facility or your giving space to a new congregation that’s coming up, it’s giving what you have generated to the next generation that can better serve that neighborhood church that no longer has the same ethnic make up that it did when you were there.
DOUG: And so it comes down to vision to be ready to see the kingdom even beyond your own context.
DOUG: So as we think about vision, as we think about the small church, as we think about all of these things it inevitably comes down to leadership. Being a small church pastor has its own advantages and disadvantages, its own strengths and its own challenges. As we think about supporting small church pastors as people from other churches in their network or their denomination maybe people who are even part of their church, what does a small church pastor need that we can help with?
RANDY: Ephesians 4 Paul talks about apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers to equip the saints through the work of ministry and I think that applies to any size congregation. You need people who maybe apostolic in your congregation. It may not be the person who is officially the pastor but someone who is visionary, who sees needs and can rally the troops. You still need that evangelist, and again it may not be embedded in the skill set of the pastor but you have to raise up that person. So you need a team – it may not just be the pastor especially if you are bi-vocational, that represents apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers and we have all five of those in place and are reproducing them within the congregation I think that also is a source of both vitality and future.
DOUG: Yeah. It seems obvious in a very large church that the pastor can do it all but often in a small church the expectation and the default lies with the pastor and so this equipping ministry its equally if not more important for the small church pastor to pursue.
RANDY: In enough self confidence as a leader to know that someone else in your congregation is probably a better evangelist or a better shepherd than you are and giving them the space to excel at what they do best. Now the gifts, we don’t choose our gifts, God has given them to us uniquely and we need to acknowledge who else in our congregation has the gifts that we might not have in strength and make sure that those gifts are raised up.
DOUG: Well Randy, it’s been great to talk with you today about this important topic and we hope that our listeners learn and grow from this. We hope to have you on the program again. Thanks so much.
RANDY: You’re welcome. My pleasure.
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